There are two months in the year – March and October – during which women are officially allowed to eat. Slotted all around them are occasions for which we need to diet. At the start of the year we are fighting the “post-Christmas bulge”. A short break, and then it’s time to get our bodies “bikini ready”. At some point – July or August – the bikini diet merges into the post-holiday detox (regardless of whether or not we have been away). Then the nights start to draw in and before we know it it’s time to “get in shape for the Christmas party season”. A brief sugar spike at Christmas and then it’s back to fighting the January bulge once more.
Of course, we rarely do any of these diets. We just know that they’re there, part of a culture that prevents us from living in the present (since for that we are too big). A future in which our bodies cease to be what we are, but objects we select – bikini body, party body, detox body – is dangled before us as the ultimate prize. We don’t believe it exists (we are not stupid) but such knowledge fails to make our present condition any more acceptable. We are the wrong shape for these times. We do not fit. What is more, we know we never will.
Protein World knew this when they produced their “Are you beach body ready?” advertisements. There is nothing particularly unusual about their approach. They are hardly the first company to use the image of a thin model to promote the idea of getting one’s body “ready” for summer. And yet, following a righteously angry article by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, this particular campaign has hit a nerve. At the time of writing, over 55,000 people have signed a petition to remove the adverts, on the basis that they are aimed at making individuals feel “physically inferior”. A “Take back the beach” protest is due to take place on Saturday in London’s Hyde Park. It seems that enough is enough. Or possibly not.
Already we’re witnessing the backlash to the backlash. Arjun Seth, the chief executive of Protein World, has labelled feminists who defaced his “aspirational” poster “terrorists”. The Men’s Rights Activist website Return of Kings (ha!) claims the adverts have “enraged feminists who hate female beauty”. The ever-helpful Katie Hopkins has told the “fat feminazis” that “feminism isn’t an excuse for being fat” and the model from the adverts has chipped in to claim that she herself is being “body shamed”. Meanwhile, in the Spectator Brendan O’Neill describes the response as “bonkers, even by the standards of this era of offence-taking and PC nonsense”:
Can’t we try to resuscitate the spirit of the old sexually liberated feminism, when the likes of Germaine Greer didn’t want to ban photos of bikinis but instead posed for them?
I’m sorry, Brendan, but no; it seems you, and your fellow critics, are rather missing the point.
Body shaming is a feminist issue. It’s a hugely important feminist issue. And yet our responses to it are necessarily patchy and inconsistent. What else could they be? We are in the thick of it, trying to live in these bodies, these fleshy sources of shame, even as we try to analyse the dynamics that surround them. If body shaming wasn’t so effective in diminishing our entitlement to space, we’d feel this angry all the time. We wouldn’t need particular flashpoints such as that provided by Protein World. But who could keep that up? Not someone who isn’t even sure of her right to exist in her present form.
Indeed, it seems to me “body shaming” is a terribly weak term to describe the enormous impact of a misogynist, fat-hating culture on women’s self-esteem. It suggests a momentary embarrassment, a fleeting discomfort, not a constant feeling of revulsion that ends up forming the backdrop to all other experiences of the world. Hatred of the flesh inhabits the flesh. It lives in every cell. It is impossible to rationalise away. Rationalisations take place in the brain but a self-hatred that has taken years to build up goes through to your very core. I do not think, in words, “I am fat,” but my arm might brush against my stomach – my thighs might rub – I might catch an unexpected glimpse of myself in a mirror – and I feel a darkness, a fury at myself, that is never far from the surface. For brief moments every day I will find my body uninhabitable. I will despair. Then I will force myself not to think about it, even though I feel it, as a dark, dull undertone, all the time. I was not born feeling like this. I learned it.
Katie Hopkins is correct to say that feminism is not about being fat. It is about women’s liberation. It is about women no longer being seen as the property of men. It is about women being able to own their own bodies, their own labour, their own words, their own time. A culture that tells women and girls that their bodies, by default, take up too much space is not a culture that recognises this ownership. It is a culture that continues to treat women’s bodies as things to which women themselves have no particular right. In much the same way that women are nominally permitted to speak in public but, in ways both implicit and explicit, prevented from doing so freely, women have been granted nominal ownership of their bodies without ever being allowed to forget the public meaning of their flesh.
It is frankly laughable to couch the feminist fightback against body shaming as a form of censorship. Indulging in dog whistle islamophobia, O’Neill compares feminists who defaced Protein World adverts to “Muslims in Birmingham [who] used black spray paint to deface an ad for H&M featuring a woman in a yellow bikini”. He ignores the fact that in the body shaming culture he champions, women are being asked to do something far worse than merely cover up; they’re told to pare away their own flesh, starve it into sexless oblivion. The Protein World advert tells women to “put it away” far more forcefully than any preacher. Hide that body, that flesh, that self. We are so offended at it that we won’t demand that you shroud it in cloth; we want you to make sure it barely exists.
There is nothing sassy or sexy or free in being starving, food-obsessed and cold (and yes, some of the models in these adverts may be healthy, but for the vast majority of women a healthy physique is not synonymous with “endless youth, a tiny waist and pert yet massive breasts”). The “old sexually liberated feminism” is a million miles away from the hungry, hairless bodies to which today’s women and girls are supposed to aspire. In the mind of men such as O’Neill, female bodies have been “liberated” only for further objectification. The sexually liberated man gets to fuck more; the sexually liberated women is merely told she can aspire to be fuckable, regardless of how such aspirations might dull her own sexual responses. It is not surprising that so many women with eating disorders end up desiring, not to look like the woman in the Protein World adverts, but to go far beyond that point. They do not wish to play this game at all.
Pregnant, I am experiencing a brief reprieve from all this. My body is increasingly cumbersome but the payback is that I feel an outsider and hence am “allowed” to take up space. If I catch sight of myself in a reflective surface I do not feel obliged to breathe in. My stomach curves out, big and round. I like resting my hand on it, not just, I think, as some protective maternal gesture, but for the sheer joy of having a massive, fuck-off belly which is mine, all mine. Of course, in a few months’ time I will be expected to worry about getting my pre-baby body “back”. And I will. The “post-baby body” is not the body of a giver of life, but a broken tool in need of repair. I wish I could bottle what I feel right now, saving it for later, but I know I cannot.
Rejecting all the magazines, posters and products that tell us we should be thinner is incredibly hard, not least because it takes more than logic. I’ve known being thin doesn’t make you happy ever since I was first hospitalised for anorexia in 1987. Almost thirty years later, I still want to be tiny. Living in the world as it is now, I feel that the less of me there is, the greater percentage of me I’d be entitled to own. Feelings such as this are strong. My hope is that sometimes anger can be stronger. We need to seize on the protests we have, those flames that flare up, and to feed both them and ourselves. We cannot think our way out of this. We have to fight back with our very fleshy presence, our material selves.